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March 01, 2010

What's so radical about family farming?

In mid-February, the third Farmers' Forum was held just prior to the 33rd Governing Council meeting of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome. IFAD is a specialized agency of the UN that funds agriculture production projects in developing countries. The forum brought together 70 representatives of farmer organizations from around the world, representing tens of millions of farmers. IATP was unable to participate due to the tight meeting quota, but the forum's statement and the IFAD president's statement merit comment, if only because they seem at odds with trends in U.S. agriculture, at least at first glance.

The forum's “synthesis of deliberations” noted first how the economic crisis had increased global rural poverty and hunger. Furthermore, “We are witnessing all over the world an increasing competition for land and water, with rising land concentration and large-scale land acquisition by transnational corporations and local elites. These practices result in exclusion of people from land and water resources, the fundamental resources on which we rely as food producers.” In response, the forum called for a return of control over agriculture to family farmers and for a United Nations International Year of the Family Farming. This call may seem out of touch with the statistical reality of U.S. farming and with an increasing concentration of market share of agricultural input production, agri-processing and food retailing that has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice to initiate hearings in anti-competitive agribusiness practices.

In the United States, the February updating of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest (2007) census shows an unremitting concentration of agricultural resources into an ever-smaller number of ever-larger industrialized raw materials production facilities, which the USDA describes as “very large family farms.” Nine percent of the estimated 2.2 million U.S. farms produce about 63 percent of the total value of all U.S. agricultural production. However, USDA reports that the growth in new farms and new farmers since 2003 is occurring on farms averaging about 200 acres in size and $71,000 in annual sales. Such sales are not enough to support full time employment in farming, so two-thirds of these farmers do not report farming as their primary occupation. For these U.S. farmers and for the declining number of mid-size family farms reported in the census, the Farmers' Forum statement on farmer control of agricultural production may be something they would like to see implemented by USDA.

For those agribusinesses and their government supporters who often state that they “feed the world,” the forum statement might sound downright revolutionary. And yet, as noted by IFAD's president Kanayo Nwanze, about 500 million small land holders provide 80 percent of food consumed in the developing world. IFAD's budget for assisting farmers in developing countries is very modest compared to that of USDA. The forum's demands are correspondingly modest, but very much directed towards establishing farmer control over agriculture through advocating participation in the design and implementation of IFAD projects. The marginalization of farmers from agricultural planning in favor of corporate and central government official control is not the kind of partnership that the forum wants farmers to be involved with in IFAD. Rather than appending the Farmers' Forum to IFAD annual meetings in Rome, the Forum statement proposes to integrate forum participation in all IFAD regional meetings.

Furthermore, nearly half of the forum statement is dedicated to the disparity between the many responsibilities of women in farming as providers of household food security and the paucity of technical and financial resources for them to carry out those responsibilities. President Nwanze gave a special welcome to the 40 percent of the 2010 forum participants who are women and remarked that only nine percent of 2006 Forum participants were women. As women continue to be denied the resources afforded to exporting farms, the forum statement notes “our sons and daughters do not wish to be farmers and continue to migrate to urban areas. This raises a critical question: How can the profitability and sustainability of farming be secured so as to ensure a future for the next generation of women and men farmers?” This question, though formulated in the context of IFAD's developing country members, is surely not foreign to U.S. family farm households.

If IFAD's members agree to a 67 percent budget increase over the next three years, President Nwanze said that the resulting annual $1 billion budget would be able to improve the livelihoods of about 60 million rural people. Programs would be targeted to involve rural youth in farming and to support the women farmers who globally produce about 60 percent of all food crops in developing countries. The role of small land holding farmers in climate change mitigation and adaptation would be another program focus.

Despite the differences between the size and sales of U.S. and developing country farms, and the differences between U.S. government and IFAD budgets, few, if any, of the concerns in the forum and IFAD presidential statements should be foreign to U.S. farmers.

Steve Suppan


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